Monday, April 30, 2012

Three Cups of Tea Author Prevails in Courthouse

The rather frivolous lawsuit against Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools author Greg Mortenson has been thrown out of court by a United States district judge.  USA Today offers the details here:
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon rejected the civil lawsuit filed by four people who bought Mortenson's books.
They claimed Mortenson lied in his best-selling books "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools" so that he and publisher Penguin Group (USA) could sell millions of books and raise tens of millions of dollars for the charity Mortenson co-founded, the Central Asia Institute.
The plaintiffs claimed racketeering, fraud and deceit by Mortenson, co-author David Oliver Relin, Penguin andCentral Asia Institute, saying they conspired to build Mortenson into a false hero to raise money.
Apparently, the judge saw a problem with the lack of specifics regarding the racketeering charge, but from the start I figured that the suit was destined for dismissal by any judge willing to exercise a little common sense.  It is shameful, really, that so much time and money had to be spent on something like this at all.  The article does not specify whether the plaintiffs are liable for any of the court costs of Mortenson, Penguin, and the school-building charity.

That said, I do still think that Mortenson's alleged decision to change the facts just enough to make him look like more of a hero than he was reflects poorly upon him and his publisher, Penguin.  We talked about that a bit last week here and I believe that Library Girl made an excellent comment regarding a publisher's responsibility to ensure the truth and accuracy of its memoirs.

See Are Publishers Responsible for Content of Memoirs They Publish? for earlier post.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Voluntourist

After Ken Budd’s father succumbed to a fatal heart attack suffered on the golf course, Budd took a long, hard look at his own life and decided that something was missing.  His was a childless marriage, but Budd was reluctant to push his yearning for children because he knew that his wife did not want a child.  Budd did know that he wanted to live “a life that matters,” one in which his good deeds would live on long after he was gone - but he did not know where to begin.

When, just a few months later, he received an email from his employer outlining opportunities for volunteers to help New Orleans residents clean up and rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Budd decided this was just the thing to turn his life in a new, more positive direction.  His two weeks in New Orleans, as described in The Voluntourist, would lead to five more “voluntourist” trips around the world, trips during which Budd and other travelers would pay for the opportunity to perform the most basic labor for people in desperate need of relief. 

After New Orleans, Budd would spend two weeks: in a Costa Rican school; in a Chinese school for mentally handicapped children; deep in the Ecuadorian jungle working with a conservationist group; observing daily life in Palestine through the eyes of ordinary Palestinian families; and working in a Kenyan orphanage.  Along the way, Budd reminded himself to live (and to test himself) by a philosophical truth he picked up in Costa Rica from another “voluntourist” – “you only learn about yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone.”   This would certainly be the case for Ken Budd.

Ken Budd
The Voluntourist tends to drift a little, often resulting in a feeling of repetitiveness as Budd returns time and again to the same personal issues he struggled with during this period in his life.  Perhaps, this was done because Budd intends for his readers to watch his thinking evolve over time as he experiences the cultures of more countries and deals with numerous children - but it makes what is already destined to be long book (near 450 pages) longer than need be. 

That said, The Voluntourist will be of great interest to arm chair travelers because of how much time the author spends with ordinary working citizens of the places he visits.  Budd is definitely not a tourist; he literally gets his hands dirty by being very willing to take on whatever task he is asked to perform.  It takes Budd a while to figure out that he is not expected to perform miracles, or to make permanent changes in the lives of those he comes into contact with – it is more about bringing some relief to people whose lives are harsher and more physically demanding than his own.  In the process of doing this, he will achieve his heartfelt goal of living “a life that matters.”

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mongoliad Trilogy - Book Trailer of the Week

It had to happen.  The folks behind The Mongoliad Trilogy (released on April 24) are promoting the new multiple-author effort with a nicely produced book trailer that pokes fun at the making of book trailers.  And it works beautifully.  This is another one of those books that would have almost certainly remained below my radar if not for this trailer.  I'm starting to love book trailers almost as much as I love movie trailers - and book trailers are rapidly catching up.

See what you think.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Land of Decoration

Grace McCleen has written an extraordinary debut novel.  The problem is that it is difficult to speak of The Land of Decoration without inadvertently spoiling its impact for future readers.  I am, however, going to give it a shot.

The book’s central character is little Judith McPherson.  Judith is a precocious ten-year-old whose life centers around her belief that she and her father are living in the end days.  Because time is running out for the world, Judith and her father regularly knock on the doors of strangers hoping to convince a few of them that they need to change their lives before it is too late. 

That the McPhersons are seen as neighborhood kooks is bad enough.  A much worse problem for Judith is that her religious ways have caught the attention of the class bully, a kid determined to make every minute she spends in school as miserable as possible.  Until Judith’s ineffective teacher is replaced by a long term substitute, she does not stand a chance against the bully and his pals.  But, when the new teacher’s efforts to protect Judith from the little monster only make things worse, Judith comes up with a plan of her own.

 For such a little girl, Judith is a big-picture person.  Her plan, one she stumbles onto by accident, is as dangerous as it is effective.  Then, when Judith realizes that the plan has serious side effects, side effects that often blow up in the face of her and her father, she decides it is time to stop.  But will she be allowed to stop before it is too late?  Are things out of her hands for good now?

Grace McCleen
The Land of Decoration is one of those books that can be read on several levels, a book whose meaning will vary from reader to reader.  It is about the relationship between a little, single-parent girl and her father, a relationship that is often strained and confusing to the child.  It is about what happens when a child suffers a personal crisis and none of the adults in her world take her hinted-at pleas for help seriously.  It explores the power of hardcore religious faith to dominate every waking moment of true believers, even – maybe especially – if they are children.  Simply put, there is a lot going on in The Land of Decoration, certainly much more than appears at first glance.

As Judith works her way through a personal crisis that would bring many adults to their knees in despair, the reader will begin to wonder what is real and what is not.  Judith McPherson is such a special little girl that it is easy to believe that what she describes is as real as the clothes she puts on every morning.  But Judith McPherson is such a “special” little girl that it is easy to believe that she is losing her grip on reality.  Readers will have to decide for themselves.

As for me, I remain somewhat mystified but would love to hear what other readers think.

Rated at: 4.0 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Another Cool Book Trailer: Nocturnal

This one does not strike me as being a particularly "literary" effort, but I guarantee you that it will appeal to all those people already hooked on vampires, Harry Potter, and Jane Austen parodies involving ghouls and the like.

I think the book trailer is pretty cool, but let me warn you that even though it is illustrated in comic book style, it is still very graphic and violent.  Anyone familiar with Scott Sigler's work?  I doubt that I will ever read Nocturnal, but this trailer has done its job; I now know Scott Sigler's name and am aware of his new book -confirming the effectiveness of this still relatively new book marketing tool.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The End of Illness

If David Agus’s book, The End of Illness, achieves nothing more, it has certainly stirred conversation regarding a few of the more commonly accepted health assumptions of the Western world.  Dr. Agus has explained and defended his beliefs in this 336-page book clearly enough that most readers will come down hard on one side or the other of his theories.  Others, like me, will find themselves straddling the fence a bit. 

The doctor’s critics will proclaim that he is merely a shill for the big pharmaceutical corporations or that he wrote the book only to promote his own new ventures in the medical world, ventures in which he claims to be on the cutting edge of new diagnostic technology.  His proponents will embrace his beliefs about things like over-the-counter vitamins being a useless waste of money, and that everyone over 40 should be on a statin drug because of the drug’s potential to prevent cancer.

Personally, I found Agus’s theory about a link between cancer and internal inflammation of the body to be an intriguing one.  Because statins and aspirin both reduce inflammation in the body, the doctor theorizes that a daily dose of each might go a long way in preventing a person from developing a tumor.  Since many older people already take both drugs at the direction of their doctors, this type of “side effect” would be good news for many. (Of course, others cannot take statins or aspirin because of the negative side effects they suffer.)  Much of what Agus says in The End of Illness is not new, and some of it just makes good common sense.  Too, the book’s title is a bit misleading because this is more a book about preventing illness than one about ending it once and for all. 

These are a few other interesting “takeaways” (some of which will simply reinforce what readers may already believe) I found in The End of Illness:

  • Frozen fruit is more nutritional than fresh fruit because it is fresher when frozen than the fruit bought in a grocery store produce department.
  • Eating and sleeping on a regular schedule will add years to a person’s life.
  • Sitting for hours at a time on a job is the “new smoking.”  Standing and, even better, walking around as much as possible during the day, will allow a person to live longer and healthier.
  • Combining a flu shot, a low dose of aspirin, and reduced stress will greatly lessen the kind of internal inflammation that makes tumors more likely.
  • Tumors might actually feed on excessive doses of vitamin C.
  • Each of us should set our personal health baseline, from which we can measure negative changes.

There is a lot of information in The End of Illness.  Some of it seems to fly directly in the face of what people have been taught their entire lives and will be controversial.  We may never know if all of Agus’s theories are correct – and there is always the chance that some of what he advocates here will do harm.  Readers will have to decide for themselves, of course, but I do applaud the doctor for igniting a passionate conversation on the subject.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, April 23, 2012

World Book Night 2012 in Texas

World Book Night 2012 is being celebrated today with some 500,000 books to be handed out to readers across the U.S. (another 2 million books are being shared with readers in the U.K., Ireland, and Germany).  I was one of the 25,000 U.S. "Givers" - and I have found a perfect home for all but four of my copies of A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The remaining four copies will be shared with a few reluctant readers I know at the office because I figure if this John Irving masterpiece can't convert them into regular readers it will never happen for them.

The picture below is of some of the book recipients at The Conservatory, a Senior Living complex located near my home; this has, in fact, been my father's home for the last two years.  These ladies, plus George, showed up to talk books and grab their copy of Owen Meany.  They were also kind enough to pick up copies for four book club members who did not make it to the giveaway (there's a lot going on at The Conservatory, sometimes causing conflicts).  As always, click on the pictures in order to see larger images.

This one is a shot of the main entrance to The Conservatory.

And this is a shot of the loot I started with this afternoon - thanks to Barnes & Noble's (Champions)  flawlessly organized pick-up WBN books for a number of us.  Special thanks, also, to Tessie Carter, Lifestyle Director, for helping coordinate everything for me.

I love the idea of World Book Night and hope that arrangements can be made to give away a full million books next year.  After all, the U.K. has only 20% of the population of the U.S. but managed to produce and give away that many.  This was all great fun but the best part was my "book chat" with the ladies...maybe, they will make me an honorary resident.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Texas Bluebonnet Trails - 2012

Texas was blessed with some beautiful weather this weekend (after experiencing a deluge on Friday night here in Southeast Texas), so we decided to hit one of the state's nicer Bluebonnet Trails on Saturday.  This is also the weekend of the annual Bluebonnet Festival in Ennis (about 30 miles south of Dallas) so there was quite a bit going on - but the good stuff is to be found on the area's three Bluebonnet trails.  This seems to have been an outstanding year for Bluebonnet flowers in that part of the state (about 180 miles north of where I live), so it was a Saturday well spent.

These pictures don't really do justice to seeing these spectacular displays in person, but they will give you an idea of what it was like, I hope.  Click on the photos for a much larger image.

Some of these fields, from a distance, were so completely covered that they looked more like water than a field of flowers.  Sadly, these blooms will probably last for less than two more weeks - but they will be back next near thanks to an initiative that Lady Bird Johnson started way back when.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Are Publishers Responsible for Content of Memoirs They Sell?

What do you think?  Should it be legal to sue the publisher of a memoir that has been falsified by its author?  We do seem to have had a rash of lie-filled memoirs in recent years, and that very well might be because publishers are dropping the vetting ball more than ever before.  (But maybe that's just a perception on my part because I read so much publishing related news on the internet these days.)

Some consumers have had it - as in those who have filed a class action lawsuit against Penguin asking to be reimbursed for what they spent on Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, two memoirs written by Greg Mortenson.  Mortenson has already agreed to reimburse the Central Asia Institute (the charity he himself set up to build schools in Afghanistan) for $1 million in expenses he received from that group over the period during which the books were researched, written, and publicized.

I have to say that, although Penguin's defense does make some sense, the way that it was worded in this LA Times article made me laugh because it sounds so childish upon first reading it:
“If a publisher were required to guarantee or ensure the truth and accuracy of everything an author says, the costs of publishing books would be prohibitive,” Penguin lawyers argued in their brief seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.
Excuse me?  That is a bit like your child saying he doesn't have time to do his homework because it will cut down on his television-watching time.

Don't publishers vet the content of the memoirs they invest so much time and money into before they print them?  Are Penguin lawyers actually saying that they cannot afford to protect the reading public (and, in this case, people who donated to a specific charity because of what they read in a Penguin book) from unscrupulous people who tweak the truth?  Why is there no language in a writer's contract that would force the return of cash advances and previously paid royalties in cases of memoirs that turn out to be filled with lies?  Surely, such a clause is in there somewhere?

A Penguin representative added:
“If the plaintiffs disagree with the books’ contents, they can debate it in their homes, their schools, their communities; write articles about it; blog about it; or tell others not to buy the books,” they said. “Plaintiffs should not be allowed to create a world where authors are exposed to the debilitating expense of class-action litigation just because someone believes a book contains inaccuracies.”
The good news is that the Central Asia Institute has reorganized in a way that allows it to continue to build schools in Afghanistan at least for now.  Its mission lives despite the alleged lies that Mr. Mortenson included in his two books.

Is Penguin correct?  Personally, I think this class action suit is silly, and that the larger issue involves lying to raise cash for a charity that would then be mismanaged by the author and his people.  Thus, the $1 million dollar reimbursement to Central Asia Institute.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Today’s generic thriller is best known for its nonstop action, a characteristic of the genre that is often emphasized by the book’s extremely short chapters and cardboard characters.  Thrillers are not usually literary in nature but, because readers of the genre do not expect literary masterpieces, they do not have to be.  When a thriller writer does get a little more ambitious by offering fully-fleshed characters, a subplot or two, and a well researched main plot, thriller readers have hit the jackpot.  But this is an easy line for an author to cross – as happens when an overabundance of exotically-named minor characters makes the plot almost impossible to follow.

James Lilliefor’s Viral, an intriguing tale of scientists who succumb to the idea of what is possible, while ignoring the ultimate consequences of their research, is one of those “literary thrillers” I describe.  The book’s main characters, brothers Charles and Jon Mallory, are made believable by the manner in which Lilliefor explores their boyhood relationship to help explain how they have become the men they are.  Lilliefor takes it a step farther by revealing the pair’s lifetimes of personal successes and failures to illustrate just how different from one another the brothers are.

Jon has always admired his older brother, the family’s golden boy, even though he could never match Charles’s accomplishments and believes that he was a disappointment to their father.  Charles is a former CIA agent who is putting his counterterrorism expertise to good and profitable use as a private contractor with a worldwide reputation for effectiveness.  Jon has taken on the rather more mundane role of investigative reporter for a Washington D.C. newspaper.  These days the two seldom even speak to each other, but after their father dies unexpectedly, Charles leads Jon along a mysterious trail around the world that will save millions of lives if the brothers can solve the puzzle in time.

James Lilliefors
Viral did, however, leave me a bit frustrated and mystified at times.  Lilliefor populates his book with so many side character villains that I could not keep up with their various relationships to the conspiracy despite trying to track them by handwritten notes to myself.  There is just not enough time for Lilliefor to develop all his characters to the point that they become unique and memorable to the reader.  Too, after having spent so much time with Lilliefor’s “ticking bomb” kind of a plot, I found myself somewhat disappointed in the book’s climax even though all the loose ends are tied up rather neatly.

That said, Viral is still one of the better thrillers I have read in recent months.  It combines the best elements of medical thrillers with those of rogue-government-agent-conspiracy thrillers to tell a plausible tale that encompasses villains worthy of a confrontation with James Bond himself.  Just be forewarned that it is best to track very carefully the comings and goings of every character right from the beginning in order to avoid the kind of confusion I experienced.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn, Official Trailer

Lots of interesting movies lately, and here's another one.  HBO is set to start showing a new HBO movie called Hemingway and Gellhorn on Monday, May 29.  The movie covers the relationship of journalist Martha Gellhorn and her husband, Ernest Hemingway.  I'm embedding the very short movie trailer that HBO has released to publicize the film - it runs for less than one minute, but gives a good feel for the time period covered and the quality of the movie.

Hemingway and Gellhorn stars Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn and Clive Owen as Hemingway.  In addition, it is directed by Philip Kaufman.  Word on the street is that this one is already an Emmy favorite.  We'll have to wait on that, but I'm impressed that a few literary films are being released lately to compete with all those vampires, starving teenagers, and wizards out there.  Unfortunately, I won't be seeing this one anytime soon because I no longer subscribe to HBO (thanks to the existence of Bill Maher there), so do let me know if I missed something good.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

World Book Night Books Have Arrived

(Designed as a small cover within a larger cover)
I picked up my 20 copies of A Prayer for Owen Meany at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble this morning and I am really impressed by the quality of these specially produced books.  This volume is 635 pages long and has a special cover noting the occasion an including some details about how it all came together.

Did you know that authors of the 30 volumes being given away have waived all the royalties they would have earned by moving so many copies of their books?  If each book was printed in equal numbers, and if  the target of 1,000,000 books was produced, that means each of the writers waived royalties on over 30,000 copies of their work.  In addition, it appears that the paper to print the books was donated, along with the publishing costs, shipping costs, and distribution costs.  This is rather amazing, if you think about that.

I'll be giving my books to members of the book club at the senior living center that my 90-year-old father moved into two years ago.  I'm waiting on final word as to the exact timing on Tuesday night, but I'm in the homestretch now.  I hope to get some good pictures of the ladies (typically, I don't think there are any male members of the club) and will post them on Book Chase next week.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl Strayed (a fitting surname she assumed after her divorce) was only 26 when she decided to start over.  Her life was a mess, and Strayed, recognizing just how dangerous and destructive that life had become, decided to make some drastic changes.  Her mother, a 45-year-old cancer victim who had been the glue holding the family together, was gone.  Her brother and sister, whom she had not been close to in recent years, drifted out of her life after their mother died.  Then Strayed cut the last close tie she had by divorcing her husband, a man she still professed to love very much.

Strayed, an avowed risk-taker, is also impetuous – not a safe combination.  This would, in fact, lead her into serious drug experimentation, promiscuousness, and the keeping of some rather dubious company.  But it was that same impetuousness that placed her on the Pacific Crest Trail to begin the 1,100 mile personal journey that would turn her life in a new direction.  That is the good news; the bad news is that she was totally unprepared for what was ahead as she began her walk through California and Oregon.

Thus begins one of the most grueling solo treks imaginable for a young woman as unready as Cheryl Strayed was when she took her first steps on the PCT.  She began by making two critical mistakes that would combine to make her miserable for weeks: wearing shoes that were probably a full size too small (a decision that would cost her more than half her toenails) and carrying a pack that weighed more than fifty percent of her own body weight.  Less painful perhaps, but much more dangerous, was her neglect to research the terrain and weather conditions she would face as her elevation rose and the temperature dropped.  All of this makes her accomplishment even more remarkable.

Cheryl Strayed
Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is almost like walking along side Strayed and listening to her think out loud.  This is a very personal book, less about hiking the actual PCT than it is about what placed Strayed on the trail in the first place.  Strayed recounts enough incidents of stress and personal danger to enthrall even the most experienced hiker (many of which, I suspect, will be particularly meaningful to women who must cringe at the thought of being as personally vulnerable as she made herself on this hike) but even her periods of methodical, downtime-walking are not wasted. 

Cheryl Strayed has written one of the more compelling and honest memoirs of recent years.  She holds nothing back, making it a real pleasure to read (and difficult not to cheer aloud, in the process) the final few pages of Wild.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, April 15, 2012


I have grown to love short stories, although it did take me a while to get there. For a long time, I was frustrated by short fiction because the really good stories always left me wanting more - a definite tribute to the writing talents of the short story writers I had already discovered. But let me show you just how far my appreciation for short stories has evolved in recents years.

 The final (or at least the latest) step in my evolution was directly influenced by the work of Nik Perring, author of Not So Perfect, a short story collection that I reviewed in late May 2010 (wow, it doesn't seem like two years since that one). Nik was the first writer of "flash fiction" that I ever read. For those of you who haven't been exposed to flash fiction, let's just define it as "short, short stories." That collection taught me to appreciate the effort and talent it took to create unforgettable characters, vivid images and impressions, and moods in just a few hundred words. And, yes, there was even a plot.

 Nik and his co-writer, Caroline Smailes, seem to have outdone themselves this time with Freaks, a collection of really short, short stories, each of which deals with a particular super power.  Nik has been kind enough to share the story dealing with the super power of invisibility with us. Yep, this is the whole story - and what a crazy image it leaves in my head.

[Super Power: The ability to make oneself unseen to the naked eye]

If I stay totally still,
if I stand right tall,
with me back against the school wall,
close to the science room’s window,
with me feet together,
pointing straight,
aiming forward,
if I make me hands into tight fists,
make me arms dead straight,
 if I push me arms into me sides,
if I squeeze me thighs,
stop me wee,
if me belly doesn’t shake,
if me boobs don’t wobble,
if I close me eyes tight,
so tight that it makes me whole face scrunch,
if I push me lips into me mouth,
if I make me teeth bite me lips together,
if I hardly breathe,
if I don’t say a word.
I’ll magic meself invisible,
and them lasses will leave me alone.

The book is available both in print and in e-book version, but with a cover like this one, I would definitely prefer the printed version.  That cover, without a doubt, adds to the fun.  

I should mention, too, that the book is wonderfully illustrated by Darren Craske, who has done an illustration for each of the stories in the collection.  This is Craske's illustration for "Invisible."  Click on it for a larger version.

I am not sure whether Freaks is available in the U.S. at this point, but it can be found on the UK Amazon site.  Perhaps Nik will see this blurb and clarify what U.S. readers should do to get a copy.  I have never ordered from the British Amazon site, so I don't know what postage costs would be on a print copy mailing, but maybe the e-book version is an easy option.  You guys probably know more about how that works than me.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Careful-What-You-Wish-For Year

I see to be having one of those "Be careful what you wish for" years.  I am finding more have-to-read books in 2012 than during any year in recent memory.  It seems that every book I request from my public library system is available for pick-up almost immediately; that I cannot walk into a bookstore and leave without having purchased at least two books; that a greater number of quality ARCs are finding me than ever before; and, most surprising, that I am constantly discovering long lost gems that have been buried on my own bookshelves for years at a time.

I have to admit that this is a beautiful problem to have, but what's someone who reads at only a slightly-above-average speed to do?

Just today, for instance, I picked up the new Joyce Carol Oates novel, Mudwoman, from the library; a pristine used copy of Philip Roth's Library of America edition of Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories from a used book bookstore; and received two promising ARCs from Soho Press.  But, thankfully, a solution is on the way - I retire in 261 more days, so I'll just try to stay even until then.  Loving it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Flannery O'Connor Homeplace

It's Friday...finally, and I'm pooped after having spent most of the day accompanying my wife to her eye examination by a local eye surgeon.  The good news is that she will soon be restored to the best vision she will have had in at least the last two decades.  The bad news is that the surgery is done in the Houston Medical Center area- home to some of the best medicine in the world, but not an easy place to get to during Houston's maddening rush hour.  But we survived appointment number one - six more visits in the next 6 weeks and we'll be done (first eye is scheduled for May 24).

So, in the spirit of taking it a bit easy this evening, I'm going to share a YouTube video highlighting Flannery O'Connor's old home place and working farm, Andalusia.  I have not been lucky enough to tour the grounds and home, but the look reminds me of William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi.  I have visited that one twice and still have vivid memories of walking the grounds all alone shortly after daybreak.  It was both a bit eerie and inspirational.  I suspect that a visit to Andalusia would have much the same effect if one could see it as alone as possible - solitude is the key to a memorable exploration of such a place.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

U.S. Sues Apple and Publishers for Alleged Price Fixing

I suppose we should have seen this one coming a mile away.  Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Feds are suing Apple and some of the largest publishers in the world for conspiring to fix e-book prices.  You might remember when all this started.

Steve Jobs supposedly made a deal with five of the largest publishers in the United States just before the introduction of the original iPad that would allow Apple to charge more than what had become the standard e-book bestseller price of $9.99 (A Steve Jobs biography even contains a quote of his in which he bragged about the deal.) 

Jobs believed that he needed more of a margin if he was going to make a decent profit with his iBooks presence, and the publishers were very worried that the Amazon-imposed “discount” price would become fixed in the mind of consumers as a threshold beyond which they were not willing to go to buy an e-book.  So, I suppose, the agreement seemed to all involved as a match made in heaven.

The publishers knew they had to stick together if they were to get this all past the powerful Amazon bunch, however, and they exchanged emails and held secret meetings to make sure that they would remain unified.  Amazon balked for a while, but finally admitted defeat and raised its own prices.

As of today, three publishers (Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins) have already agreed to settle the charges by terminating their Apple agreement – thus freeing up Amazon to charge as little as it wants to charge on e-book sales.  Macmillan and Penguin have not settled. 

The smart money is saying that Amazon will soon be selling e-book bestsellers again for $9.99.  This is probably a good thing, at least in the short term, for consumers.  But what does it mean for Barnes & Noble, a company already struggling to stay in business and turn any kind of profit?  Is this just another nail in B&N’s coffin, or is it going to turn out to be the final one that nails the lid down tight once and for all?  What does it mean to other e-book sellers.  What does it mean to Apple, for that matter?

Would you, as a book consumer, be willing to pay the higher prices if that kept Amazon from developing a bookselling monopoly?  Is choice and availability as important to you, as a book-loving consumer, as price is?  If so, you might not be too happy in a year or so if Amazon’s victory holds up.  Tell me about it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Bitter Veil

Libby Fischer Hellman is best known for the mysteries featuring strong female leads she writes, but her latest is more like last year’s Set the Night on Fire in which Hellmann took a more literary approach to a specific period of American history (the radicalism of the 1960s).  With A Bitter Veil, the author focuses on the series of events that would lead both to the rise to power in Iran of the infamous Ayatollah Khomeini and to the downfall of American president Jimmy Carter.  What makes the novel such a compelling read is Hellmann’s skill at recounting this turning point in the relationship of the two countries through the eyes of a rather naïve young American woman who falls in love with an Iranian student she meets in Chicago.  Similar stories have, sadly, happened all too often in the real world during the last three decades.

Abby would like a family within which she can feel secure and protected, but she has the opposite.  She is not particularly close to either of her parents; in fact, her mother has lived in her own native France for most of Abby’s life.  Her physical and emotional response to Nouri, the young Iranian student she meets in a Chicago bookstore both surprises and pleases her.  From almost the moment they meet, the two young people are inseparable and Anna dares to hope for a long future with Nouri.  She is willing, almost eager, to follow him back to Iran to begin life there as a married woman. 

As fate would have it, the couple returns to Iran at precisely the moment the Shah’s power and his hold on the government are slipping away forever.  So gradually that Anna fails to recognize the warning signs, Nouri changes from the religiously liberal man she married into a strict follower of Islam.  Nouri, whose father is close to the Shah and has become wealthy through his political connections, makes the change largely to ensure his own economic survival.  Anna can understand the necessity of wearing the veil in public but in reality she becomes her husband’s prisoner - never allowed to leave their home alone.  Worse, she learns that because she married in Iran she cannot leave the country legally without her husband’s permission.  Nouri swears he will never allow her to leave. 

Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Bitter Veil is the story of a typical young American who finds herself tested in ways that the average, naïve American could not imagine in the late 1970s that they would ever be tested.  The things that happen to her are simply not supposed to happen to an American – but when they do she must rise to the occasion if she hopes to survive long enough to escape Iran.

I do have one warning about the novel’s ending: do not begin the final segment (you will recognize it when you get there) unless there is time to finish the rest of A Bitter Veil before bedtime.  Consider yourself warned.

Rated at: 4.0